Photo by Valeri Krupsky
“Peter”, he began “during the Cold War I became aware of an accident between a Soviet and an American submarine. I am writing a book about it now that the incident has been de-classified. I was wondering if you mind taking the first draft of the book over to a Russian friend of mine who will proof read it for accuracy.”
I readily agreed and Peter dropped off a small package a few days later. I was in a rush to get everything together for the trip and did not think much more about his book till I was going thru my stuff in Moscow a few days later. I called the phone number on the envelope and talked with a Mr. Ivan Borisavitch who gave me instructions to an apartment complex on the outskirts of the city.
I am normally unable to tell the difference between an upscale neighborhood and a sketchy one in Russia but something told me that the building I was entering was different from its neighbors. There was not that worn out look from years of neglect. In fact there was a French feel to the architecture coupled with the smell of exotic cooking.
I rang Ivan’s bell and a short stocky man with bright blue eyes greeted me with a happy “hello, welcome to Russia” in perfect English. His wife behind him pointed me to a table set for a delicious lunch.
“I am so happy and grateful that you have brought Peter’s book to us. It will provide an important milestone in US-Soviet history. Have you heard the news about the Kurtst?”
I had heard on the news on the way over that a Russian submarine based in Murmansk had recently sunk in the White Sea and an international effort was underway to save the crew at the bottom of the ocean. “Come and sit down and we can talk. But first we must eat some of Masha’s wonderful cooking.”
“Have you read Peter’s book?” Ivan asked as we made our way to the dining room. I confessed that I had not. “Well, it tells an amazing story. You know Peter worked for your government here in Moscow during the ‘difficult times’ and he had heard of rumors of an accident where one of your subs crashed with one of ours. But it was in the interest of both sides to keep this quiet for years. Then one of these days along comes perestroika and Gorbachev and things between our countries begin to improve.”
Masha placed a delicious soup on the table and motioned for us to eat as we talked.
“Well, Peter and his wife were at a resort in New Hampshire one winter and during supper Peter heard a conversation at a nearby table that would change his life. A man who had been an officer on an American submarine was describing to his dinner partner an accident with his ship and a Russian sub.”
“Peter could not believe his ears. He was overhearing the whole story first hand, the name of the ship, the date, the place, even the name of the Russian sub. He waited until this man had finished his supper, then he slowly approached him on the stairs to the rooms above. Well, you can imagine Peter’s excitement when the man agreed to extend his evening and tell him the whole story. And now I will tell you the story that the stranger told Peter.” Ivan took a spoonful of the soup and now told me the story the hotel guest had told Peter.
“I was the engineering officer on the nuclear powered submarine the USS Augusta in the summer of 1985. We were off the New England coast searching for Soviet subs when we located the K-219 in about 1000 feet of water. We could identify her exactly by the sound her propellers made in the water.”
“At the time we had several submerged subs stationed off the coast of Murmansk where the K-219 was based. We had Russians spying for the US on shore who would see the name of a sub as it left the harbor and we would record their prop noises. Each sub had a unique fingerprint and soon we knew not only which sub was which but we knew the names of each of their captains and their specific history.
“So on this day we began to close in on the K-219 but with a special technique that prevented us from being detected. This meant that we knew she was there but she had no idea that we were there.”
“So these were games that everyone played, maybe crazy games and it was just a matter of time before someone got hurt. We were both in international waters so K-219 had as much right to be there as we did. But try and tell that to our captain. He wanted to see how close he could get, then scare the pants off his rival and send him back to Murmansk with his tail between his legs.”
As engineering officer, I had to slow down our atomic reactors as part of our disguise which meant we had little forward motion. We were basically coasting, two nuclear atomic reactor systems moving dangerously close to each other like two sharks circling for the kill. Except one was blind. All at once there was a crash and I went lurching forward. We had rammed the side of the K-219. Our damage control people reported that we had water coming into the forward part of the ship but there were no people in that compartment and we were in no danger of sinking. The captain broke silence, started up our engines and ordered that we surface immediately to render aid to the Russian sub if needed.”
“To our knowledge there was no precedent for aiding the Russians at sea. We knew that we were not to break radio silence and that the higher ups would decide how to politically handle this. But we also knew that these Russians were human beings and but for the grace of God we could be the ones in trouble. So the captain decided that we would render immediate assistance the minute they surfaced, if in fact they ever surfaced.”
“I was one of the few on deck to lower a life raft. It was as flat as a country pond that day. We had a man on the conning tower with a rifle looking for sharks. Several of our crew were fluent in Russian and they were on deck with me. It was very quiet, not a person spoke once everything was in place.”
“As the ship’s engineer and also a graduate of atomic engineering school, a horrible scenario was slowly playing out in my mind. If the K-219, also a nuke, was so badly damaged that she should sink before her crew could shut down her nuclear power plant, when she hit the bottom her reactors would overheat and explode like a nuclear bomb under us. We would all die, our ship would add to the radioactive cloud and we would make atomic history.”
“But no one spoke of leaving. And very soon the Soviet sub surfaced not three hundred yards away. Our raft was lowered into the water but before it made its way half the distance, a Russian flag signalman appeared on the deck and asked us to please call our rescue boat back. They told us that they had radioed a Russian freighter who was about 2 hours away to come to their rescue. Our captain replied that we had a doctor on board who spoke Russian but apparently there was no need for his services.”
“As far as I was concerned that was our cue to depart the scene and head for New London to attend to our damages but the old man would hear nothing of leaving. We stayed there for 7 hours before the freighter came along side. We could see that the subs pumps were working overtime to empty water from the seriously damaged hull. Then when we thought the last of the crew was safely on board, the freighter departed and suddenly the sub began to sink. Our captain immediately ordered everyone below and ordered our ship to submerge, in spite of our injury. Because we had such a much faster submersed speed, he was willing to take the risk. We made it to our base at New London in nine hours, arrived intentionally after dark and were escorted to a special dock where we were examined for nuclear contamination and told to never speak of the accident.”
Ivan paused for a moment and his wife went to make coffee. Then he began to tell his part in the story.
“The man had come to the end of his tale for the night and would not speak of it again. Peter could not sleep as he was sure that the man had more to tell. Luckily Peter met me several years later when a group of retired Russian and American submariners got together in Florida. You see I too was a sub captain and I knew the rest of the story. And now thanks to changes in both our countries I was at liberty to inform him of the truth.”
“The Russian captain knew almost immediately that his ship was in dire straits. He had trouble cooling his reactors down. It was a choice of running the pumps to save his crew until the freighter arrived or cooling his reactors so as to avoid a meltdown. When the crew was safely aboard the freighter, he and the engineering officer and two other crew members volunteered to stay on board while the ship sank. This way they were able to control the speed at which the sub fell, slowly so that the reactors had time to cool. But at some point, no one knows for sure when, the K-219 broke apart under the huge pressure of the deep ocean and all four men perished.
The courage of these four men prevented a nuclear accident of epic proportions off your coast. They received the highest award that the Soviet Union can present posthumously. They were heroes but nobody will know this until Peter’s book is published and released here in Russia. The book will be quite controversial and timely considering that today we have once again submariners trapped at the bottom of the sea. I am very happy that the book is safely here”.
I love Russian cooking but I can honestly say that I did not taste a bit of Masha’s meal that day. My mind went to the crew of the Kursk who were now sitting at the bottom of the White Sea as Russian politicians were arguing over whether to accept America’s aid in the rescue. And there was also a rumor that an American sub was seen entering a Norwegian port with a damaged bow. How would Peter’s book taste to the higher ups on both side of the Atlantic?
Masha and Ivan and I finished our coffee and I rose to depart. As my host shook my hand he held it for one long moment.
“Peter, I need to ask you for one more favor. Peter’s father was a great hero to the Russian people during World War II. He was an American colonel and a tank commander. His division fought alongside Soviet soldiers against overwhelming odds. But even though many died, at the end of the day the Germans retreated.” Ivan then reached inside his pocket and handed me a small box.
“He was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal of honor but for a number of political reasons it was never given to him publically. Would you now take it to his son?”
I had now been to Russia over 20 times and knew how difficult it was to take historic mementos out of the country. Ivan understood my reluctance.
“Look,” he said, “Peter and I understand the risks. Someday we may have an open society here. I think we are on the road. But I would like Peter to have his father’s medal before he too is gone.” So I took the small box and said I would do my best.
Ten days later at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport a customs official found the box hidden in a compartment in my carry on luggage. He called me aside.
“It is illegal for anyone to take historic artifacts out of Russia”, he reminded me. I pleaded with him, asked him to read the inscription, to have a moment of compassion for a war hero.
“ What do I care? How do I benefit from this man’s heroism? Do you think for a moment that my life is better? Can I go over to that duty free shop and buy a quart of single malt whiskey? No, but you can.”
What was he suggesting, here in the middle of a crowded waiting room with other customs officials busily at work? I could not believe my ears.
“Don’t worry, I will watch your bags. And you have plenty of time. I will make sure the plane will wait,” he smiled pleasantly.
One hour later a Lufthansa jet lifted off from Russian soil carrying with it a medal for a hero while one petty customs official was heading home to enjoy a bottle of Bushmill’s Single Malt. In the end, everybody got what he wanted. But it was my first straight up bribe and I felt a bit dirty.